For the Future of Modern India, Look Beyond the Metros

The next chapter in India’s story is just as likely to be found in
the heart of Orissa or Gujarat, as in Delhi or Mumbai

During the course of my various client and prospect meetings, I’m often asked about how brands – particularly international ones – can relate to modern India and participate in discussions around the same. There are many opportunities ranging from the increasing rights and opportunities for women, to the ‘internationalisation’ of Indian culture from sport to Bollywood.  Some of these trends will be more relevant to consumer brands, others more focused on the B2B audience.

One of the most compelling – and relevant to all brands – is the fact that the country’s destiny is no longer owned by the metros; the largest cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. The story of modern India is just as likely to be defined by Puri or Cochin, as Mumbai or Bangalore.  And the Indian Government appears to concur. Its ‘UDAN’ scheme1 is introducing subsidised flights to Indians living outside metros. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA) has seen its funding rise to Rs 48,000 crore from Rs 37,000 crore; today, it represents the world’s largest employment guarantee scheme for villages. Other public programmes range from the Prime Minister’s rural housing scheme to rural road programme, reflecting the regions’ newfound significance.

A ‘new wave’ of non-metro consumption is driving Indian growth2; as much as 35% of the sales of luxury brands in India are coming from these non-metro cities3, while over 50% of e-commerce business now comes from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities4, including Amazon where 55% of the orders are generated from Tier 2 cities5. Retail chains such as Being Human are focusing beyond the metros – 100 new stores will open over the next three years across Tier II and beyond6 – while restaurant chains such as Dominos are also following suit7. Google’s recently announced ‘Solve for India’ is all about energising the start-up ecosystem in Tier II cities8, while ICICI Bank is committed to transforming 100 villages into ‘ICICI Digital Villages’ in 100 days; inspired by the success of India’s first digital village created by the bank in Sabarkantha district, Gujarat, last year9.

Driving and also reflecting the above, is the fact that India is more connected than ever. In terms of physical linkages, the government’s National Highways Development Project10 is increasing connectivity between the four major cities and the rest of the country. Over 4.6 million km of road have already been built and new four- and six-lane highways continue to be created. The power of Indian mass media11 — including 70,000 newspapers and 800 TV channels with 100 million Pay-TV households and over 200 radio channels — are constantly beaming messages into every corner of the country. All of these have allowed young Indians to develop shared experiences, aspirations and outlook regardless of their location.

In turn, rural aspirations, trends and attitudes – particularly amongst the young – are also converging. In common with their urban counterparts, rural youth share a desire for a comfortable life, progressive values and enthusiasm for technology. In 2015, rural Indians spent 25.3% of salaries on mobiles and other communication services12, virtually the same as their urban counterparts (26.3%). They also spent 44.71% on vehicles for domestic use; again, an identical pattern to India’s urban consumers (45.72%). India’s rural and urban convergence is complete.

Today’s rural youth seek access to education and utilities – power, water, toilets and fuel – and expect political leaders to deliver on the same. Education of girls13 is also seen as a priority to achieve progress. The International Labour Organization14, in 2016, interviewed young men and women in rural areas and small towns across the country. They encountered youths who wanted to pursue higher education and work as fashion designers, and others who worked as radio jockeys, app developers and civil engineers. They were physically located outside big cities, but their career choices made them the same as their urban counterparts. Whether rural or urban, today’s Indian youth have more in common than at any time in history.

As consumers, India’s Tier II and rural youth are also becoming more discerning; a survey by Accenture15 found that 42% respondents from rural India would increase spending in a category if it allowed them to buy a better version of the product.

The era when brands can afford to focus exclusively on the ‘easy access’, homogenous metro market is over. If that means that messaging, marketing and logistics are about to become even more complicated, then so be it. This is the ‘entry price’ for being a player in the next chapter of India’s story.

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